School is in session

Houston college's $60 million energy tech center debuts in Pasadena

Today starts classes in San Jacinto College's new center. Photo via sanjac.edu

San Jacinto College is gearing up to open the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology at its main campus in Pasadena — a $60 million project designed to bolster the Houston area's petrochemical workforce.

On August 21, the community college hosted media tours of the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology (CPET). The center will welcome more than 2,800 students August 26 and host a grand opening September 18. The college broke ground on the 151,000-square-foot center in September 2017.

At CPET, future and current petrochemical workers will learn about process operations, troubleshooting, nondestructive testing, instrumentation, and myriad other aspects of the industry. In all, CPET will offer 75 courses. The center's highlights include an 8,000-square-foot glycol distillation unit, 35 labs, and 19 classrooms. San Jacinto College bills the center as the largest petrochemical training site in the Gulf Coast region.

"Four years ago, a team came together from San Jacinto College and the East Harris County Manufacturers Association to put together a long-term plan for workforce development," says Jim Griffin, associate vice chancellor at San Jacinto College and senior vice president of petrochemical, energy, and technology. "The Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology was part of that plan and is now a reality."

Griffin says the curriculum, classrooms, and labs were "designed and influenced" by the petrochemical industry.

Among CPET's more than 20 partners are:

  • Emerson, which donated more than $1.3 million worth of services and equipment.
  • INEOS Olefins & Polymers USA, which contributed $250,000 in cash.
  • Dow Chemical, which donated $250,000 in cash.

All three of those employers — and many others in the region — depend on schools like San Jacinto College to contribute to the pool of highly trained workers in the petrochemical sector.

"We expect to see a higher-than-normal level of retirements over the next five plus years; rebuilding our workforce is critical at this time," Jeff Garry, Dow Chemical's operations director in the Houston area, said when his company's CPET donation was announced. "The need to train and adequately staff our assets will continue to be a pressing concern. As the labor market becomes more competitive for talent, we understand the importance to attract and retain highly skilled and educated workers."

With four campuses in Harris County, San Jacinto College promotes itself as a training hub for the country's largest petrochemical manufacturing complex, featuring 130 plants and employing about 100,000 people. CPET will serve as the centerpiece of that hub. Overall, the community college says it "plays a vital role in helping the region maintain its status as the 'Energy Capital of the World.'"

PetrochemWorks.com — a petrochemical career initiative whose backers include JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and the East Harris County Manufacturing Association — says the local petrochemical industry will need 19,000 more skilled workers annually over the next three to five years.

"Chronic shortages of skilled labor are increasing costs and schedules and resulting in declining productivity, lower quality, more accidents, and missed objectives," according to Petrochemical Update, a news website.

Although robots are on the rise in many industries, Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who's an energy and technology expert, believes that as petrochemical companies increasingly turn to automation, productivity will go up, ultimately creating more jobs — not fewer.

"In large part," Mills writes, "it's desperation, not an infatuation with tech or cost savings, that drives employers to deploy technologies that amplify the capabilities of the employees they have and can find. It is a common misconception to think that automation is always cheaper than using labor."

Houston-based Tracts, which makes it easier for mineral buyers and E&P companies to find leads in the industry, is geared for major growth. Courtesy of Tracts

A Houston company has flipped the script on lead generation for mineral buying in the oil and gas industry. Tracts.co has developed a way to get its clients in front of mineral sellers they otherwise wouldn't know to approach.

"Right now, mineral buyers have one major bottleneck — it's consistent across companies except those using Tracts — and it's lead generation," says Ashley Gilmore, CEO and co-founder of the company.

Traditionally, mineral buyers or E&P companies would have to go through public records to source leads. But Tracts' customers have access to the company's title management platform, which uses a patented computation engine and an interpretation library. The process reduces the cost and time spent generating leads, as well as the risk associated with mineral ownership and exploration and production companies and mineral buyers, Gilmore says.

The company has been around since 2014, and began hitting its stride last year after beta testing and working out the structure of the technology. Now, the more customers Tracts has, the more data the system has, which translates to a more valuable platform.

"For some of our clients, Tracts is now existential for their business," Gilmore says. "In other words, they wouldn't be able to operate on their current business model without Tracts."

It's not only customer growth the company has seen. Tracts launched a land solutions group called TLS — Tracts Land Solutions — in the beginning of the year. That group is growing by a dollar amount of 30 percent month over month since January. Tracts also opened a Dallas office, which focused on this land solutions team, to keep up with clients.

"There were two people in Dallas working from home in January," Gilmore says. "Last month, we moved into a 12-person office, and now we've already outgrown it."

Tracts has a 16-person office it'll be moving into, and Gilmore says he expects to double that in the next month or so. Tract's Houston headquarters is around 10 people, and the company has its development team in Seattle. The technology, Gilmore adds, is able to be used throughout the country since it's cloud based.

All this growth is translating into some interesting developments for Tracts, but Gilmore isn't ready yet to announce anything.

"I think our clients are going to be very happy within the next three to six months," Gilmore says.

Tracts allows its clients to skip a few steps in the mineral buying process. Courtesy of Tracts